And then when a detail is still missing, we turn to Matthew. He’s got the dreams and Joseph and Magi — the mystical details. This account delights in the darkness when most men are sleeping and the travelers are making a way through the wilderness. These are the hours left to third shift workers, whose eyes adjust to the rich blackness of night and they do their work. This is when God works, too.
When you prefer the story as poetry, John has the right verses. It sounds like the creation stories from Genesis, “In the beginning,” and reminds us that Jesus has always been somewhere – and since God so loves the world, now Jesus is very much right here.
There are a lot of ways to tell the story of God becoming flesh and living on earth — gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, countless hymns and songs, prayers and sermons and stories that have been bringing us back to the manger for thousands of years.
There are just as many motivations for Christmas, unique reasons we gather and perceive this night as good news. In a world and nation and religion so often and deeply divided, we spend an awful lot of time sanitizing and weaponizing the Christmas story… using the gift of Jesus’ birth as an instrument for building walls between neighbors, or as a strategy to keep Americans shopping, as a method for forced family gatherings, or a gentle reward for believing in God during the rest of the year.
It’s tempting to move the story around, to manipulate it into our own comforts and corners where it can become soft and stale and seasoned to our personal taste. Jesus is so small, so vulnerable — we have a habit of putting him in a front carrier so he can go where we want to go and see what we want him to see.
But the birth of God on earth is no tame thing. Christ has not come so we can tell him who to love or what to believe or how to save the world. As it turns out, we are the ones being moved.
Even a plain old regular baby turns everything upside down.
< Jasper, Twins in Front/Side Carriers, and the Polar Bears >
Jasper asked, “Mom, do polar bears have lifeguards?”
Is this a sign? Immobilized by despair and hormones.
This is the threat a newborn child brings to our way of being. Their very presence challenges the way we’ve always done things. Sure, newborn innocence is filled with wonder and peace, but it also requires us to face the world we’ve been building, the power we’ve been using or abusing or neglecting altogether, the future we are curating for the vulnerable while they are still without steps and words and a notion of what they’ve gotten themselves into being alive and here.
When I get lost in a bible story or fear I am wielding its grace for my own personal benefit, I try to stop and look for a sign. It turns out, they are everywhere.
God set a rainbow in the skies above Noah and declared it a sign:
That love wins.
That life matters.
That creation is worth a divine promise.
That God was willing to limit power for a real relationship with the world.
And, when Abraham thought he was too old to father a child, let alone a nation, God told him to look up — way up — for a sign: That his children would outnumber the stars. That they would shine like the heavens. That anything is possible for the God of the whole cosmos.
Signs guided biblical characters into marriage, into safety, into leadership, into migration, into hope amidst suffering and community with each other.
Signs have guided God’s people from the very beginning, holy reminders that when we watch and listen to the creative world, there are instructions and promises waiting for us — courage and awe we can borrow in spades!
The Christmas story speaks the sign really plain. Actually, the angel does. On the edges of town, the angel tells the shepherds: This will be the sign: you’ll find God in flesh, the Savior of the whole world, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
These ancient words still offer a sign, one that speaks directly to those forgotten or on the edges, one that tells us to leave what we think we know, to release the tools of our most obvious work and identity, to be moved from your familiar pastures to a brand new place, where strangers receive you and together you marvel at what cannot be explained.
There is a baby. And he is God, wrapped in the bands of our human time and space, our brief mortality, that most vulnerable and cradled posture we have all practiced whether we remember it or not.
And he’s lying in an animal trough, this crib for grain and slop fit for cattle.
He will be gobbled up alright. He will be hunted by Herod and hidden by Joseph and revealed by Mary and called out by demons and criticized by leaders and adored by those who walk in darkness, who work on the edges, who search the skies for a sign that can move us and change everything.
This is the sign that God is here — ready or not, like it or not, God is here — in the grief and tension and vulnerability, in the mending and the moving and the mothering.
My kids continue to have a lot of questions about the natural world: pollinator gardens, animal adaptations, watersheds… They already understand, perhaps in ways I had forgotten, that the wellbeing of the individual is tangled up with the wellbeing of creation. We are connected.
It pains me to explain complex issues about the planet, but the same word that paralyzes me in fear or defensiveness can move them to action. They are inspired to participate and grow toward new insights, behavior, and responsibility.
My children and the polar bears have taught me that a sign is real and sacred when it moves you to a new location, when it calls you to action, when it invites your participation and transformation.
Jasper’s question about the polar bears had me frozen in grief, in the protective instincts of a parent who wants to keep their children bubble wrapped and blissfully unacquainted with the suffering of the world.
But it was not a sign because it did not move me, it did not call me, it did not change me with love that frees.It did not look a thing like God’s gift of Jesus, a letting go and coming near, a showing up to feel the fullness of life and death together.
These days, when we arrive at the Como Zoo, they have dollar bills and coins in their hands, ready to donate, to save the bears, to feed the monkeys, to hose down the penguins. They seem to understand vulnerability as a relationship, and deep value in being moved toward what could still be.
We are being stirred from our corners and comfort toward one another, toward the face of God IN one another, and to the heart of God’s wildest dream.
There are a lot of right ways to tell the Christmas story, but the call is to tell it so that we ourselves are moved to a new location, disrupted from old assumptions, confronted by the possibilities of salvation in Christ to free us from thinking anyone and anything else can.
So come and see.
You will find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. He is bread for the world. He is a feast of love. He is the sign we’ve been waiting for.